The official language of Ireland has received its greatest exposure to the world in the delicately gorgeous film The Quiet Girl, aka An Cailín Ciúin.
Based on Irish author Claire Keegan’s acclaimed novella Foster, the film follows 10-year-old Cáit (newcomer Catherine Clinch) as she is sent away for the summer by her neglectful parents as her mother prepares to give birth again. Dirty kneed and oily haired, Cáit goes to live with her mother’s distant cousin Eibhlín Cinnsealach (Carrie Crowley) and her husband Seán (Andrew Bennett), who show Cáit a warmth and kindness that has been missing from her life.
The film retains the original story’s 1981 setting, a time of turmoil in Ireland where jobs were few, money was scarce, and the violence and civil unrest of The Troubles continued. Discussions on those unsettling and scene-setting topics are absent, displaying director Colm Bairéad’s desire to create a story told from Cáit’s perspective by withholding adult conversations she wouldn’t have understood. Her perspective is further reinforced with low angles reminiscent of a child’s perspective, and use of the boxy Academy aspect ratio.
“[Everything] that you experience through [the film] is limited to what the girl experiences herself,” Bairéad told Matthew Mahler of Movieweb. “You’re hoping that an audience will remember what it feels like to be a child, to remember what it feels like to be in an unfamiliar place, or to be confused, or to not have any agency over what’s happening to you.”
Rather than using exposition, Bairéad sets the scene through small details. Cáit’s family home has deteriorated, paint chipping from the smudged walls. At the Cinnsealach home, Cáit expresses shock when she dips her toe into a hot bath and compares the preservation of perishable food in a refrigerator to Tír na nÓg (Irish legend, The Land of Eternal Youth) – both modern conveniences not widely available in Ireland at the time. However, the strongest detail that sets the film’s place, and its most revolutionary feature, is its use of the Irish language.
Often confused with Gaelic (an adjective that describes Irish people and their culture), the Republic of Ireland’s official language is called ‘Gaeilge’ (pronounced Gwale-gah). Despite being declared the Republic’s official language in 1922 and a compulsory subject in Irish schools, Gaeilge’s usage has declined to the point of being declared endangered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), estimating there are only 20,000 to 40,000 Irish speakers worldwide. Instead, English has become the dominant spoken language of the country, a legacy of British colonisation, and the devastation of the 1845–48 Great Famine further reducing the number of speakers.
The Irish language still lingers, whether among the rural communities along the country’s west coast, or in Hiberno-English, a dialect of English influenced by Gaeilge’s grammar. But one speaker who tightly held onto the Irish language is director Colm Bairéad’s father, a teacher who only spoke in Irish and helped set up an Irish-speaking school (Gaelscoil) in Northern Dublin that counted actor Brendan Gleeson as a student.
“My father spoke only in Irish,” Bairéad wrote for Curzon. “He did this simply out of a deep-rooted belief in the value of language and a conviction that our own, declining native tongue was something worth saving.”
While The Quiet Girl is the most prominent Irish-language film, there is a small history of the language in cinema. The first film to feature Irish was the 1935 documentary short Oídhche Sheanchais, but for decades the best-known cinematic depiction of Irish is a short scene in the 1952 film The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.
The first Irish-language feature film came in the form of the 1978 crime drama Poitín, and its next depiction wouldn’t arrive until the 2007 film Kings. The number of Irish-language films has increased significantly in recent times due to Cine4, a partnership between TG4, Screen Ireland/Fís Éireann and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, that provides funding to develop more films in the language. Such successes include the Great Famine drama Arracht and the comedy Róise & Frank, while The Quiet Girl has become the first Irish-language film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.
Ireland isn’t alone in embracing its native language. As the United Nations have declared this the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, a reclamation of Indigenous languages has occurred across the world, from Navajo dubs of Star Wars to the music of Cornish/Welsh musician Gwenno. In Australia, First Nations languages have gained wider recognition, including through the music of acts such as King Stingray and rapper Baker Boy, both of whom perform in Yolŋu Matha, and The West Australian newspaper featuring a front page in Noongar-English to mark Reconciliation Week 2022.
Irish revolutionary Padraig Pearse once said, “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam.” “A country without a language is a country without a soul.” The souls of Ireland certainly have reason to sing after the success of The Quiet Girl.
The Quiet Girl is now streaming at SBS On Demand.